Monday, October 25, 2004

(This column first appeared in slightly different form in The Washington Times on Aug.19, 2002.)

Fifty-eight years later, it remains one of the signature plays in baseball history — especially with another World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox at hand.

Oct. 15, 1946, Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Red Sox and Cardinals tied 3-3 in the eighth inning of Game7. Enos “Country” Slaughter is on first base for the Cardinals with two out when Harry Walker bloops an apparent single to left-center field.

Running on a 3-2 count, Slaughter takes off before the ball is hit. He should advance only to second base on the weak hit, but the quick start enables him to turn the corner toward third.

Center fielder Leon Culberson, subbing for the injured Dom DiMaggio, does not have a strong arm, but he gets to the ball and makes the relay to shortstop Johnny Pesky. With his back to the infield, Pesky does not see Slaughter recklessly rounding third and heading home. He wheels around and hesitates — and with that, Slaughter scores the winning run of the 43rd World Series, sliding home well ahead of Pesky’s hurried throw to catcher Roy Parmelee.

The “Mad Dash,” as Slaughter’s trip around the bases came to be known, has preserved his place in the game’s annals. There are no video replays because the ‘46 Series was the last not to be televised, but the play is shown on film whenever baseball’s most dramatic moments are recalled.

Yet Slaughter, a fiery North Carolinian who died in 2002 at age 86, should be remembered for much more than one play. From 1938 to 1954, when he was traded to the New York Yankees with tears in his eyes, he epitomized the Cardinals’ old Gas House Gang spirit much as Pepper Martin had in the ‘30s. Slaughter never walked or even jogged on a ballfield, a style Pete Rose adopted when he came to the majors in 1963.

Slaughter always ran — and he could do more than run. A left-handed line drive hitter, his batting average for 19 seasons with the Cardinals, Yankees, Kansas City Athletics and Milwaukee Braves was .300 with 2,383 hits, and he surpassed that average in 10 seasons. With the Cardinals, he served as a dependable helpmate for all-time All-Star Stan Musial. The Cards’ outfield in the early ‘40s — Musial in left field, Slaughter in right, Terry Moore in center — ranked with the best of baseball’s modern era.

In 1958, at 42, Slaughter had enough left to bat .304 in 77 games for Casey Stengel’s Yankees. That team was the fifth pennant-winner he played on, and there would have been more had he not lost three full seasons to World War II.

Despite these credentials, Slaughter didn’t enter the Hall of Fame until 1985, when the Veterans Committee voted him in. One reason might have been his suspected involvement in a plan hatched by some of the Cardinals to strike in 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the modern era.

Slaughter also was accused of trying to deliberately spike Robinson on a play at first base that season, a charge he vehemently denied. Yet it was no secret, in the tenor of very different social times, that many Southerners were unhappy to be playing with or against blacks.

Such matters aside, Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” lives on in lore. Although Walker’s hit was ruled a double by the official scorer, it should have been scored as “single, down on the throw.” Which, of course, made Slaughter’s feat that much more remarkable — even if he thought otherwise.

“To me, it was just a routine play,” he told author Peter Golenbock. “As I rounded second, I said to myself, ‘I can score.’ The reason was, when we lost the fifth game of the Series, Mike Gonzalez, the third-base coach, had stopped me too quick on a relay throw, and when they juggled the ball, I could have scored.

“I went to [manager] Eddie Dyer, and he said, ‘From now on, if you think you have a legitimate chance to score [and don’t], I’ll take the blame.’ Then this play [in Game 7] came up. … If either [second baseman] Bobby Doerr or [third baseman] Pinky Higgins had hollered ‘home,’ I think [Pesky] coulda thrown me out by maybe 10 feet.”

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Understandably, Pesky — who still works for the Red Sox at 85 — saw matters differently.

“I got blamed for something I didn’t think was my fault, and it still comes up,” he told Golenbock decades later. “About three weeks ago, I was in the market, and a guy comes up and says, ‘You’re a bum.’ I said, ‘You want to blame me, go ahead.’ It’s one of those things I’ve had to live with.

“I remember the play like it was yesterday. I was almost at second base when the ball was hit, and now I have to retrace my steps and go out to left-center. By the time, I got the [relay], looked around and threw home, Slaughter had scored. … It was a sad, sad experience. To this day, I feel we had a better club than the Cardinals. It’s a sad thing when you think you should win, and you don’t.”

Said DiMaggio, whose defensive prowess in center field equaled that of big brother Joe: “I was sitting in the dugout after leaving the game [with a pulled leg muscle], and we tried to get Culberson to move over toward left a little more because Walker was a notorious left-field hitter. Leon really did nothing wrong, but if he had been playing over a little more, it might not have gotten to that point. … I often wonder, ‘If I had been out there, would we have won?’”

No one will ever know the answer. What we do know is that Enos Slaughter more than lived up to his aggressive image while creating the biggest play of his career. Now, nearly six decades later, the Red Sox have another chance to get even by beating the Cardinals.

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